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Michael Rossmann, S.J.January 28, 2014

As much as Nelson Mandela unified the country of South Africa and helped to advance political justice, many recent articles have highlighted the country’s continued social inequality and economic stratification based on race.

Governments and other institutions can take action to reduce economic inequality and societal division, though recent stories about individuals’ responses to such realities in South Africa raise questions for any of us who are isolated from others in our society.

The story of Julian and Ena Hewitt, featured in The New York Times last September, raised both an outpouring of support and a hailstorm of criticism for their actions. This white middle-class South African couple, along with their two young children, left their large home in a gated community in Pretoria to live for a month in a 100-square-foot shack with no electricity or running water in an informal settlement. They brought only a few possessions and lived on a limited budget, wanting to experience the reality of fellow citizens who were geographically near but economically far from their world.

Another story from South Africa that has attracted attention covered a luxury hotel’s development of a “shanty town.” In an attempt to recreate the experience of living in a slum, the hotel offered shacks made from simple wood and metal and the opportunity to use an outhouse and an outdoor fire. These so-called shacks, however, have under-floor heating and wireless Internet access and rent for more than $80 a night—about half the monthly income of an average South African.

The Hewitt family and those who pay to stay at the artificial shanty town represent two different responses to a situation of inequality and isolation. While Shanty Town guests might have a greater experience of a different reality than someone who never leaves the gated community, paying considerable money to experience a “slum” strikes many as strange or even “poverty pornography.”

Critics have similarly accused the Hewitt family of gawking at black poverty, and many have justifiably noted that the daily struggle experienced by those in the settlement where the Hewitts stayed received no attention until a white outsider visited.

On the other hand, instead of visiting a settlement just to have a story to write home about—like staying a night at Shanty Town—the Hewitts built relationships with people who could teach them about a different reality. They continue to visit friends they made and attend a church they discovered, even after returning to their regular home.

Whether one believes the Hewitt family experiment was a good thing or not, it is hard not to admire their desire to break out of their comfort zone. When asked why they were doing this by the Times reporter, Mr. Hewitt responded, “It’s very simple. We’re doing it for ourselves. We’re doing it to change ourselves.”

This need for personal conversion is not limited, of course, to the Hewitts or to South Africa.

All too frequently in my own experience, I have stopped myself from engaging in different experiences that could produce needed personal conversion out of fear that others would not understand. I’ve thought that if I go to a certain place or event where I am clearly an outsider, people might wonder, “What is he doing here?” By my sticking to what is comfortable, however, my fear prevents my mind and heart from expanding.

When I travel around the world or even to another part of my own city where I feel out of place, new relationships often kindle needed personal conversion. The presence of an outsider may create confusion or raise doubts about motives, but like the Hewitts, I have often found that people are far more welcoming than I could have imagined.

Being an educated white male affords me the privilege of comfortably walking into many situations that others might not be able to explore, and while I am uncomfortable with my privileged reality, it indicates the particular need to see that my world is not the only world.

The Hewitts did not want to remain isolated from their fellow citizens, and they wanted their children to learn to interact comfortably with all people.

While they may not have changed entrenched inequality, they started to change themselves. That challenges me to do the same.

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